I’m generally skeptical of all things Airbnb. It’s not just the questionable things they do to cities i.e. one person buying up multiple properties in a neighborhood and renting them out exclusively to travelers. I just generally feel awkward running up and down the staircase of an apartment building, sticking out as the obvious tourist. I’d much rather be in a hotel, lumped together with my fellow ignorant travelers. To me, a city hotel is a safe space to make mistakes. Nobody expects you to know the cultural cues of a destination when you’re walking in and out of a hotel.
That said, I do from time to time pop on over to Airbnb Experiences when I’m traveling and even when I’m not. When I first moved to Berlin, I found it could be a great source for locating neighborhood interesting tours, cooking classes, and other culinary experiences. So that’s precisely what I looked for when Melanie and I planned our trip to Gdansk to celebrate our anniversary.
I quickly found what appeared to be a no-brainer. The Airbnb Experience promised a vegetarian tasting menu with cocktails inspired by traditional Polish cuisine. I was fresh off a trip to Belgrade where the dishes were meat with meat and a side of meat. It was a shock to my otherwise vegetarian system. So I relished the opportunity to see how the flavors of Polish cuisine could be brought out in a vegetarian meal. Plus, I saw that the restaurant was located a tram ride away from the touristy Old Town center. This would surely be a unique taste of Gdansk.
The description for the Airbnb Experience came with a suggested time, noting that they could be flexible. We stuck with the recommended time slot, presuming it would be easier for the staff. We also assumed that we’d be dining with others booking this Airbnb Experience and wanted to make scheduling easier, much like any other food tour I’ve ever booked in places like Athens, Belgrade, Rome, and London.
Everything about the experience description implied that this would be a group outing with the chef explaining the connection between the vegetarian tasting menu and traditional Polish cuisine. When we arrived, I told the host that we booked the Airbnb Experience expecting that this would operate as some kind of code, like Ace Ventura shouting, “New England Clam Chowder” to get into his friend’s secret lab. The host seemed puzzled for a moment before grabbing a couple of menus and asking us to follow him. He escorted us to a small square table with a white tablecloth and left us to take our seats.
There were a handful of other diners, most seemingly on dates. A waiter came by, seemingly shy and hesitant to speak but with a wry smile.
“You have the vegetarian tasting menu, yes?” he asked. I confirmed and he departed to get us some cocktails to start the meal. It didn’t occur to me to ask but I quickly realized we would be alone for the evening––not a bad thing necessarily. I’m obviously perfectly happy to dine alone with Melanie. What surprised me was to see that the menu had a vegetarian tasting menu.
“So, what’s so special about the Airbnb Experience?” I asked Melanie.
Nothing, apparently. As it turns out, we simply booked a dinner reservation through Airbnb and pre-ordered the vegetarian tasting menu. The chef didn’t come out at any point to tell us how he combined traditional Polish flavors with a modern twist. Instead, we were merely treated to occasional visits from our poor, increasingly sweaty waiter as he presented us with increasingly smaller plates of food that I suppose added up to a meal in the end. A bit of green paste with strips of crunchy something sprinkled on top, a two-sip soup with a quail egg, and something that looked like an ambrosia salad of gummi bears were some of the more peculiar dishes.
Other dishes were reasonable enough, but the experience was a fresh reminder as to why I tend to avoid restaurants with self-congratulatory language on the menu. The fact is, we were hoodwinked into a regular dinner reservation at one of those upscale restaurants that describes itself as “innovative” so they can double the price of the meal while halving the portions at the same time. This was no more an “experience” than the most liberal definition of the word that allows for everything to be considered an experience. Life is, like, an experience, man.
But kudos to whoever at the restaurant who thought to rebrand “reservation” as an Airbnb Experience. I’m sure it’s resulted in plenty of extra, passive business for them from people who aren’t likely to return again anyway if they’re disappointed at the whole missing “experience” bit. (This restaurant offers a few other “experiences” on Airbnb that are clearly the same deal but just ordering something else off the menu.)
I just worry about what’s next. Will laundromats be rebranded as “authentic, local clothing restoration”? “Urban upcycling origins” to watch locals take out their garbage?
Fortunately, I had great company. So all’s well that ends well.